Reporters Without Borders is stunned by the four death sentences imposed yesterday by a military court in the eastern city of Bukavu for the murder of UN radio journalist Serge Maheshe at the end of a trial riddled with absurdities. Two of the four people sentenced to death were close friends of Maheshe who were with him when he was gunned down on a Bukavu street on 13 June.
“We never imagined that the Bukavu military tribunal would take its incoherence and denial of justice this far,” the press freedom organisation said. “This insane verdict was based solely on the contradictory claims of two persons unknown to anyone, and was not supported by any material evidence or motive. Other theories were given little attention or were not investigated at all.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “The prosecution’s scenario does not stand up, and the court itself recognised the continuing uncertainties. How under these circumstance could it impose the death penalty on defendants who were denied any chance to defend themselves properly and were denied the benefit of doubt? A new trial must be held before an independent court after a complete and thorough investigation.”
Two of the four persons sentenced to death, Freddy Bisimwa and Masasile Rwezangabo, were convicted of murder, while Maheshe’s friends, Serge Mohima and Alain Shamavu, were convicted of “criminal association.” The verdicts were based solely on “confessions” made by Bisimwa and Rwezangabo that they shot Maheshe at the behest of his two friends. No material evidence or motive was produced to support this claim.
Eight other defendants accused of varying degrees of involvement were either acquitted or convicted of related offences.
Two soldiers initially accused of being the killers were cleared of the murder although a witness recognised one of them by his voice and gait during the re-enactment and although, as the court itself recognised, one of them deliberately destroyed the AK-47 assault rifle used in the murder, receiving a six-month sentence for “destruction of a weapon.” A civilian defendant got a six-month sentence for escaping at an early stage in the investigation.
Maheshe, who was news editor of the Bukavu office of UN-backed Radio Okapi, had said shortly before his murder that he had received threats, especially being after being briefly arrested and roughed up by two soldiers, both members of the Republican Guard (the former Presidential Guard). Reporters Without Borders has copies of his email messages describing these incidents. The authorities have produced no evidence that these two soldiers were ever questioned.
Yesterday’s verdicts and sentences have been criticised by Maheshe’s family, the lawyer representing his friends, and by Journalist in Danger (JED), which is the Reporters Without Borders partner organisation in Democratic Republic of Congo.